In the struggle of common purpose, progressive ideologically motivated youth had miraculously outgrown their religious identity.
The end of apartheid in South Africa in February 1990 was the theme of my talk on Mandela Day. As I was the first journalist to meet him after his release from 27 years in prison, I wanted to share my experiences.
The Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 signalled the Soviet Union’s end. This, in its wake, unfroze conflicts across the globe that were sustained by the West in the Cold War.
I remember how Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and other Commonwealth leaders failed to persuade Britain’s Margaret Thatcher at a 1986 summit in London to stiffen sanctions against the apartheid regime. “More sanctions would hurt black workers”, she argued.
Likewise, Italy’s Christian Democrats stayed in power with unspeakable corruption, which Italian judges subsequently investigated and exposed, but only after the Soviet threat ended. The Communists, under leaders like Enrico Berlinguer, were a formidable threat.
The sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland ended with the 1998 Good Friday agreement. The former Yugoslavia became seven independent republics. Many Central Asian republics emerged.
An unforgettable drive through these republics left two indelible images on the mind. Impeccably clad saleswomen and men supervised large, well-stocked stores of United Colors of Benetton, lined with fashionable clothes and multiple, expensive decorative items. Remarkably, there was not a single buyer in sight. This was capitalism advertising itself.
The other image was of empty mosques but packed Orthodox Churches celebrating the post-Soviet “freedoms”.
In Northern Ireland, the sectarian animus ran deep, going back to the 1690 Battle of Boyne when Protestant William of Orange defeated the Roman Catholic James II. “Had William lost to James, the throne of England would have been Roman Catholic”, Jack Sawyer, editor of the Belfast Telegraph, explained.
This passionate desire for union with Britain in perpetuity stoked Catholic or Republican anger. Ultra right-wing Unionists like Rev. Ian Paisley shunned any accommodation with the IRA, its political wing Sinn Fein, or with Dublin. Their language was aggressive: “We shall never be under the jackboot of Dublin.” Then the USSR collapsed and the Good Friday agreement was forged.
It is in this sequence that the West decided to free itself of the odium of sustaining apartheid. It was as part of the choreography of this process that Mandela’s release after 27 years in the white man’s prison became its crowning glory.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a friend of Mandela’s and a distinguished leader of the anti-apartheid struggle, encapsuled the consequences of apartheid in one of his sermons. “When the white man first came to South he had the Bible in his hands, we blacks had all the lands. But as time passed our roles were reversed: we had the Bible and the white man had all the lands.”
To cover Mandela’s release from Victor Verster prison, outside Cape Town, my crew and I had to enter South Africa before apartheid had formally ended. How does one enter a country with which India has no diplomatic relations? Informal arrangements were made with the help of joint secretary (Africa) Arundhati Ghosh, a most helpful officer and friend.
Clearing immigration was easy enough, but almost insurmountable were the customs formalities. A closed society had exceptionally strict rules for TV cameras and other equipment. I had to find someone in Johannesburg who would stand surety for us. In other words, someone had to deposit half a million rands with the customs authorities. The sum would be returned on our way out “if the regime had found our behaviour satisfactory”. In other words, the guarantee was not so much for the equipment as for our journalistic behaviour. It was an unstated promise extracted from us that our TV shows would not embarrass the departing regime.
Among the phone numbers I had with me was one of Yusuf Cachalia, whose father Mohammad Cachalia figures in Mahatma Gandhi’s South Africa years. As soon as Cachalia learnt of our predicament, he sent help to what is now Johannesburg’s Oliver Tambo airport: a cheque by way of surety included. It was an extraordinary act of generosity because Yusuf bhai (as I began to call him) did not know me at all.
“I wanted an Indian journalist to cover the end of this cruel system.” Yusuf bhai and his wife, Amina, were friends of Mandela’s since his earliest days in the African National Congress (ANC), of which the two were also members, before Yusuf bhai branched out into “stocks and shares” in the “interest of family and party comrades”.
It took me a while to understand the presence of nine ministers of Indian origin in Mandela’s first Cabinet. Some Indian diplomats took a dim view of the fact that only Mac Maharaj and Jay Naidu were Hindus. The remainder were all of Muslim origin. Quite remarkably, Frene Ginwala, a Parsi, was the first Speaker of South Africa’s new National Assembly.
Mandela’s principal adviser in his office was Ahmad Kathrada. Mandela’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, maintained the pattern: his principal adviser was Essop (Yusuf) Pahad. There is a sociological explanation.
When the ships carrying the first batches of indentured labour docked in Natal in 1860 onwards, to work on the sugar plantations, a majority of their progeny joined the tricameral legislatures established in 1984-94 to accommodate Indians and coloureds. There was no representation for blacks.
Later, when Gujarati Muslim merchants arrived to cater to an expanding Indian community, their children had the means to acquire the best education outside South Africa. And these graduates of Western enlightenment later returned to join the South African Communist Party and the ANC, its affiliate. In the struggle of common purpose, these progressive ideologically motivated youth had miraculously outgrown their religious identity.